CAN A house change a person’s life? Can it become part of who a person is?” She shot me a weird look, I don’t blame her. Like most people, she was puzzled at what I’d said, puzzled that I carried around a photo of a house with me in my bag — no people, nothing else in the picture… just a house. And for a second I thought I was weird too. I wasn’t sure of the answer I’d give to the question I myself had posed.
The house in question was a big sprawling bungalow with five different gardens up front and a backyard so big and filled with giant rats, snakes, peacocks, parrots, scorpions and god knows what else, that I wasn’t allowed in it. My world consisted of those gardens, that house, and the tree-lined street in front of it — though sadly, like most army houses, this held true only for about three years.
When I had just moved to Delhi along with my family, I would cycle to piano classes at four every afternoon and stop in front of the then unoccupied house, which stood out proudly — unkempt, sprawling and wildly green — between the impeccably manicured houses that belonged to the retired chief of army staff and the GOC. It seemed like a rebellious teenager, just as I was then, and I would spend hours staring at it in wonderment. Not wondering who’d get it, or if there was a story attached to it or anything — just plain wonderment. Some things are really hard to explain. The fact that my father was allotted the very same house, that too on the day of my fourteenth birthday — will never fail to amaze me every single day of my life.
When we moved in, I was like the house itself — unruly, defiant and trying to stand out. Moving out of the tiny Jodhpur cantonment, and coming to a place as big as Delhi cantonment, I was suddenly faced with the fact that the world was much bigger and faster than I had realised, and that it didn’t necessarily revolve around me. I was thrown out of the niche that I had carved for myself and I had to make a new one. I tried really hard at first, but eventually I gave up. My desperate attempts to fit in only resulted in further social ostracization. For a child of 13, if you remember, change can be a terribly terrifying thing.
That’s where the house came in. My father never tried to tame the house and make it like all other houses on that street. The trees could grow as they liked, the wild flowers were free to bloom in their own corner just like the chrysanthemums and poppies. The pets — snakes, mongooses, peacocks and giant rats — all had a share in my little universe, we all learnt to co-exist. The scorpions in the bedroom were a little scary in the beginning, but eventually we got used to those too!
While I stubbornly spent my time wallowing in self-pity, it was the house that found a way in when no person could. It grew on me. I learnt to climb trees like a professional, spent entire afternoons chasing hornbills from tree to tree and taking pictures of them, learnt the name of each tree, flower and weed by heart, found out stories behind things and made up stories where there were none. The funny part is — the more these days spent exploring the wilderness made me at home with myself, the more other people became comfortable with me. Along with the 12 budgies, two rabbits, two parrots and one dog that had moved in with her, the scared little girl grew up too. Strange as it may sound — I lived in that house for three years, but that house lives inside me even today.
I answered my own question.
“A house can change a person’s life. A structure of bricks and mortar can become part of who a person is”.
I am sure that I am right. I am also sure that no matter what part of the world I move to, or who presently lives in that house, it is my home. And the little unruly girl who still lives in my heart knows that too.
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 12, Dated March 27, 2010